Unprecedented alliance of scientists, physicians, health advocates agree: Toxic chemicals are hurting brain development

July 1, 2016

An unprecedented alliance of leading scientists, medical experts and children’s health advocates agree for the first time that today’s scientific evidence supports a link between exposures to toxic chemicals in food and everyday products and children’s risks for neurodevelopmental disorders.

Dr. Stephanie Engel, headshot

Dr. Stephanie Engel

Stephanie M. Engel, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, is among those scientists who are speaking out.

The alliance, known as Project TENDR (“Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks”), is calling for immediate action to reduce significantly exposures to toxic chemicals to protect brain development for today’s and tomorrow’s children.

Neurodevelopmental disorders include intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficits, hyperactivity and other maladaptive behaviors, and learning disabilities.

Prime examples of the chemicals and pollutants that are contributing to children’s learning, intellectual and behavioral impairment include:

  • Organophosphate (OP) pesticides;
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants;
  • Combustion-related air pollutants, which generally include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter;
  • Lead;
  • Mercury; and
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).

“There is a large and growing body of scientific evidence that exposure to certain environmental chemicals adversely impacts the development of children’s brains,” Engel said. “Vulnerability to these exposures begins at a very early stage of development—while a woman is still pregnant. At this point, the prudent thing to do is to focus our efforts on preventing or reducing exposures to these chemicals in order to protect future generations.”

“This is truly an historic agreement,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, TENDR co-director and environmental epidemiologist at University of California-Davis. “It’s the first time so many leaders in public health, science and medicine agree on the message from the scientific evidence – that toxic chemicals are harming our children’s brain development. Ten years ago, this consensus wouldn’t have been possible, but the research is now abundantly clear.”

Project TENDR is a joint endeavor of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) and the University of California-Davis MIND Institute (Medical Investigations of Neurodevelopmental Disorders).

Read the consensus statement signed by 48 scientists, health care professionals and children’s advocates, as published July 1 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

About Project TENDR

Project TENDR is an alliance of 48 of the nation’s top scientists, health professionals and health advocates. Participants have come together across many disciplines and sectors, including epidemiology, toxicology, exposure science, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, nursing, public health, and federal and state chemical policy.

Medical and scientific societies whose members have signed on in support include the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Endocrine Society, National Medical Association, National Hispanic Medical Association and the National Council of Asian Pacific Island Physicians.

TENDR’s long-term mission is to lower the incidence of neurodevelopmental disorders by reducing exposure levels to chemicals and pollutants that can contribute to these conditions, especially during fetal development and early childhood.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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